The coronavirus pandemic has tested the bond between artists and acolytes. With live venues off-limits, many music lovers have been content to watch free online concerts on Zoom or stream their favourite bands on Spotify, which pays artists less than £0.004 per play — but others have been keen to offer more tangible support. Some of these fans are turning to Bandcamp, an online music retail platform, which sells MP3 downloads, vinyl, CDs, cassettes and merchandise, to strengthen that virtual bond. Bandcamp typically takes only a 15 per cent share of sales, compared to about 30 per cent for both iTunes and Amazon. And its popularity is growing. Over a 30-day period to July 10, artists sold more than $20m worth of products, and big-name musicians such as Björk have made their back catalogues available on the site. The Oakland-based company’s increased profile has helped turn the tide somewhat in favour of digital music retail against the subscription-based streaming model of Spotify, Apple Music and Tidal. Bandcamp’s reputation as a marketplace that puts an emphasis on supporting artists has developed in tandem with an increasingly political stance. On several recent “sales days”, it waived its usual share of sales to support artists affected by Covid-19, or handed over its cut to US causes fighting for social and racial justice. For many of its users, it has become more than an online record shop — it has become an ethical choice. To the uninitiated, the site can seem clunky and simplistic. Music can be streamed but it halts if you click on to another artist or label page — it is not primarily a music player. And although it hosts daily editorial content, its “gatekeeper” role is minimal; instead, knowledgable users share curated lists on external sites such as BuyMusic or in Google Docs that point to pages on Bandcamp. Formed in 2007 by internet entrepreneurs Shawn Grunberger and Ethan Diamond, Bandcamp has taken on little outside investment during nearly a decade of steady growth and profitability. “It is such a slowburn and looked old compared with streaming for a long time — now it suddenly looks like the model of the future,” says Keith Jopling, consulting director at UK technology research group MIDiA. The question now is how this relatively niche, low-margin business can continue to grow and whether it can stave off new entrants or old rivals keen to capitalise on the renewed interest in online music retail.
DeForrest Brown, aka Speaker Music, a New York-based techno artist and theorist, has used Bandcamp as a means to circumvent a host of issues including the streaming model of Spotify, which he describes as “broken”. His new album Black Nationalist Sonic Weaponry is a confrontational work of juddering rhythms, ghostly jazz motifs and found sounds such as samples of police calls, news reports and blaring horns. He brought forward its release to Juneteenth, a US holiday commemorating the end of slavery, on which Bandcamp donated all its fees to the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund. Brown bemoans the “dull consumer experience” of algorithmically determined recommendations on other sites. “Amazon has trained everyone to think that if they ‘like’ this certain thing, then they’ll ‘love’ this other recommendation, but that’s not how music works in a cultural way,” he says. As for the financial succour the site has provided during lockdown, he says its sales days “have absolutely put money in my pocket in a way that made me question everything”. For German dance music label Running Back, Bandcamp is only part of a larger retail network, contributing to about 15 per cent of its overall sales. But Matthew Styles-Harris, a DJ and manager at the label, says sales on the site have doubled every year since it joined in 2016. For Running Back, which has an extensive back catalogue of cutting-edge house music from producers such as Krystal Klear, Prins Thomas and Roman Flugel, the main drawbacks of selling through Bandcamp are logistical, such as working out royalty payments for different territories. The current reduction in air travel has also raised the cost of posting physical products to the US. Like many other labels, it released a special album on Juneteenth. “Music has always been political, and Bandcamp’s stance was good to see,” says Styles-Harris. In announcing the Juneteenth donation day, Bandcamp CEO Ethan Diamond said: “We stand with those rightfully demanding justice, equality, and change, and people of colour everywhere who live with racism every single day.” Bandcamp is not alone in either Silicon Valley or the wider music industry in taking a political stance. Bas Grasmayer, a Berlin-based music technology expert, sees the gesture as “part of a much wider push in the music industry to address its own issues with race, as well as leveraging the cultural influence the industry has to address the problems people of colour are facing.” This push includes support for the first wave of black house music producers from the 1980s, many of whom did not receive royalties from their labels, and for better deals for black artists in general. “It makes perfect sense that a company such as Bandcamp would show support for bodies such as the NAACP, as well as the artists themselves,” says Nick Siddall, co-founder of instrumental label Trestle Records. © LightRocket via Getty Images Used to hosting ad hoc ensembles of musicians at venues such as Cafe Oto in east London or a converted Nato missile base near Düsseldorf and recording and releasing the improvised results, Trestle had to adjust quickly to lockdown. “Musicians were in a bit of shock at the start, as their whole year was essentially cancelled in a matter of days,” says Siddall. In response, the label launched a “From Isolation” series of socially distanced digital collaborations between musicians. Usually, Trestle sells music and merchandise at live gigs as well as via Bandcamp, but from March to June its sales on the site more than doubled compared with the same period a year earlier. “The current situation has posed serious questions for the whole industry, not just independent labels and artists,” says Siddall. “But it has been a bit of a leveller, in that every artist now has the same limitations. People want content now more than ever.” During the pandemic, many smaller bands, DJs and experimental groups have seen the advantage of having a presence on Bandcamp. So does the site stick or twist? While Grasmayer says its “DNA is in being a type of Shopify for music”, he says users will be looking for more innovation — and that these could help drive sales. “It could do better in terms of being a music destination where people go to discover new music, or where niches and subcultures gather, which are currently roles performed by the likes of SoundCloud, Instagram and TikTok,” he says. With venues likely to be shut down for many more months and needing funding to survive, MIDiA’s Jopling sees another opportunity in the live concert streaming market. But capitalising on either trend would still only take Bandcamp so far when it is up against a streaming market that is forecast to keep growing. He says: “Bandcamp could grow 200 per cent a year and still be considered niche.” But, he adds: The future for artist marketplaces is beginning to look good”.